Whale Watching in Panama

Humpback Whale Migration Near Playa Venao

Every year, thousands of humpback whales leave their feeding areas during the colder months and migrate to tropical seas near the Equator to breed and give birth to their young. According to NOAA, humpbacks migrate farther than any other mammal. These whales travel from 3,000-6,000 miles between their feeding and breeding grounds. Ocean temperatures affect how long the whales stay in an area.

 

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

 

Whale Watching Season

Panama and Costa Rica are the only waters that receive humpback whales from both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. From December to April, several hundred humpbacks arrive from North America. The main whalewatching season however, is from late June to mid-October, when several thousand humpback whales arrive from Antarctica. The whales migrate over 6000 miles to breed and give birth.

Humpback migration map
Humpback migration map Source: www.grida.no

Whale Watching in Playa Venao and Pedasi

The whales come very close to the Pacific Coast of Panama – this includes Pearl Islands/Contadora (near Panama City), Isla Coiba (near Santiago/Santa Catalina), and the Azuero Peninsula. Yes, that includes Pedasi and Playa Venao!

Whale watching is amazing in this area, and often only requires a 10-20 minute boat ride offshore to view groups and mom/calf pairs. Occasionally you can see them from shore. Unlike in other whale watching areas, the whales in these shallow waters tend to be more playful and stay near the surface, diving for only short periods of time.

Mom/calves typically “hang out” for a few days before moving on. Though infrequently, sometimes late in the season we’ve seen playful calves accidentally wander into the bay of Playa Venao to check out some of our surfers!

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

What to Expect on a Whale Watching Tour

The best chance for a sighting occurs in the morning. Typically these tours depart between 6-9am.

During a whale watching tour, you may witness the following:

  • Male humpbacks in “rowdy” groups: a group of 3+ males competing for the female’s attention. These sightings are rarer, but are seen near Isla Iguana. They present the best chance of seeing a “breach,” or a complete jump out of the water as they vie to become the female’s mating partner.
  • Female humpback, often with the calf. A female is pregnant for 11 months, which means she first travels to Panama to breed, migrates back to polar waters to feed, then returns back to Panama’s shallow, warmer waters to give birth. The mothers nurse their calves for about 1 year, so they stay close to the shore to avoid predators while teaching their newborn calves how to swim and hunt.
Whale watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Rowdy male group
Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Mama with Calf

 

 

Some typical whale behaviors:

  • Breaching: when a humpback propels itself completely out of the water. Common beliefs are that breaching is done to eliminate parasites, for fun, or in the case of males, to show off their strength to their female partners!
  • Pectoral slap: slapping the water surface with their flippers (side fin).
  • Tail slap: slapping the water surface with their tails. Commonly thought to be forms of communication, aggression, or a way to show dominance.
  • Blow: explosive bursts of air when the whales come to the water surface to breathe.
  • Spyhop: when a whale raises head out of the water, so it can see above the surface.
  • Logging: when a whale floats quietly on the surface.
  • Flukes up: when the whales raise their tail flukes in preparation for a long underwater dive.
  • Whale songs: males make unique squealing, lowing sounds in breeding areas.

 

Whale watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Pectoral Slap
Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Blow
Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Tail Slap
Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Logging
Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Breaching (almost)

Endangered Whales

The humpback whales that can be seen off the coast of Panama are still endangered, even though their population is finally increasing.

One of the reasons why it has taken so long to increase the humpback whale’s population is that the females only have babies once every 2-3 years. A mother humpback will carry her calf for 12 months. The calf is born 3-5 meters in length and 900kg in weight. Most humpbacks live for around 50 years.

 

Responsible Whale Watching

Panama’s ARAP dictates that whale encounters may not surpass 30 minutes, and the boat must maintain a minimum of 5 meters with the whales.

 

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi
Dawn in Canas / Venao

 

A Few Tour Operators in the Area:

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 Frailer Tours »

(Tours in Spanish) Launches from the Cañas marina and circles the open waters outside Playa Venao and El Ciruelo. Captain Jairo, a Cañas local, knows the waters in this area like the back of his hand. The dawn as seen from the waters near Venao is truly something. Price: flat rate of $150 up to 5 people.

 

Isla Cañas Tours »

(Tours in English/Spanish) Launches from Playa Arenal in Pedasi and circles around Isla Iguana. The boat segment is relatively shorter compared to other tours as the main attraction is the day trip to Isla Iguana (snorkel gear, snacks provided). Price: $160 up to 2 people, or $53/adult ($27/child) for groups 3+.

 

Casa Lajagua »

(Tours in English) Launches from Playa Arenal in Pedasi. The whale watching can be packaged as part of a day trip to Isla Iguana or a half-day fishing expedition. Aboard a fully-equipped Contender with an expert captain (Craig, a Pedasi transplant and owner of Lajagua), the trip will be nothing short of luxurious. Price for the fishing package: $100/hour (minimum 4 hours) +10%, up to 4 people.

 

Try to Organize Yourself

If you speak decent Spanish and don’t mind bringing your own amenities, you can head straight to Playa Arenal, and try to arrange with a local fisherman in Pedasi. There are usually a few waiting to take tourists to Isla Iguana at Playa Arenal. The roundtrip fare to Isla Iguana is about $60 (this includes the fishermen’s time spent waiting at the island) for a half-day/full-day trip. Whale watching will cost a bit more as it uses more gas. Not all practice responsible whale watching practices however.

 

Panama City

If you are in Panama City but your schedule doesn’t allow you enough time to make it out to Azuero, I recommend Whale Watching Panama based out of the city. The tour is on a 60-person boat so may be less intimate. But it is organized by a team of ecotourism experts (including a Marine Biologist Ph.D). The tours depart weekly (Saturdays) during season, and heads to the Pearl Islands (Contadora). $150 per adult / $85 per child (5-12) and includes lunch.

 

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

Whale Watching Playa Venao Pedasi

 

 

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